We can’t talk about Nissan’s greatest sports car and not start with the brand’s biggest rival. In 1967, Toyota released the 2000GT, a world-class grand tourer that served as a halo car for the entire Japanese auto industry. With its gorgeous supercar looks, free-revving double overhead cam straight six, and an unforgettable appearance in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, it not only marked the arrival of the modern Japanese sports car, but it did it with an exclamation point. The downside? With a price of around $7,000, it was thousands more than a comparable Jaguar E-Type, and without name recognition in the cut-throat sports car world, production ended in 1970 after just 351 2000GTs were built.
But just as Toyota was leaving the global sports car market (it would return with the ponycar-fighting Celica for 1971), rival automaker Nissan/Datsun was picking up right where the 2000GT left off. In fact, Nissan’s connection to Toyota’s range-topper went deeper than one might think. The 2000GT began life as a collaboration between Nissan and Yamaha, with a design by Bernard Goertz, the man behind the iconic BMW 507. A prototype was built, but when Nissan walked away from the project, Yamaha pitched it to Toyota, Toyota gave it a redesign, and the rest is history.
The dream of a sports car for the masses
But unlike Toyota, Nissan already had some success in the sports car world — even in America. Launched in 1959, the Fairlady roadster was in many ways a spiritual precursor to the Mazda Miata. Small, peppy, and pretty, it was an MGB/Austin-Healey Sprite/Triumph Spitfire fighter that offered everything the Brits did, except it would start every morning and wouldn’t leave oil stains on your driveway. But outside of warm climates and the die-hard roadster set, the Fairlady wasn’t going to set any sales records, and Nissan’s U.S. chief, Yutaka Katayama, knew it. He saw the potential of a 2000GT-type car for the American market and in 1967 pushed for a halo car that could keep up with the world’s best while staying affordable for most buyers. He pitched the idea to the brass in Yokohama, and luckily, they listened. As a result, the first true world-beating Japanese sports car was unveiled to the public in October 1969.
The big Datsun gamble
In its first decade, Nissan USA was the redheaded stepchild of the company. Launched in 1958, the company began selling its cars as Datsuns in the U.S., in order to distance itself from its role with the Japanese military in World War II, also so it could reintroduce the brand later on if Datsun failed. But by the end of the ‘60s, the company was starting to pick up steam. Its small trucks were popular on the West Coast, and its compact 510 sedan (released 1968) was having success in SCCA competitions and drawing comparisons to the more expensive BMW 2002.
Exotic engineering, affordable price
Back in Japan, Nissan’s brass wanted to call its new sports car the Fairlady Z. Over in the U.S., it was known as the 240Z, named after its 2.4 liter inline-six. Like the 2000GT (and Ferraris, Jaguars, Aston Martins, etc … ), it had cutting edge features like disc brakes, a fully-independent suspension, and an overhead cam engine. Unlike those exotics however, it cost around $3,500 fully loaded — or about the price of a well-equipped V8 Ford Mustang.
Best in its class
Mustang buyers might have regretted their purchases the minute they got passed by a 240Z. Nissan cribbed a lot for the Z-car’s design, but it still had a look all its own. The 2000GT was a Japanese Jaguar, but the 240Z had some E-Type, Porsche 911, Ferrari Daytona, and even some Maserati Ghibli thrown in for good measure, too. And the comparisons didn’t end with its looks — in a class with the MGB GT, Porsche 914, and Opel GT, it not only blew the doors off its competitors, it had a higher top speed than a Porsche 911T. Reviewing the car in June 1970, Car and Driver declared “The difference between the Datsun 240Z and your everyday three-and-a-half thousand dollar sports car is that about twice as much thinking went into the Datsun. It shows. For the money the 240Z is an almost brilliant car.”
A winning formula
As Toyota learned, it was too great of a leap to go from economy cars to supercars. But it wasn’t much of a stretch to go from economy cars, to sport sedans, to sports cars, as Nissan soon found out. Unlike the 2000GT, Datsun’s relatively low profile gave the 240Z an almost exotic status in America. Plus, slotting in that sweet spot between European sports cars and American muscle cars, the buy-in wasn’t high enough to scare people away. Datsun sold a respectable 16,215 Zs in 1970, but as muscle cars became more and more constricted by safety and emissions standards by the year, Z sales continued to rise. By the end of 1973, Datsun sold 148,115 Z cars in the U.S.
The Z loses its way, but gets more popular
For 1974, the Z-car got a bigger 2.6-liter engine, and became the 260Z. It looked about the same, but it was bogged down with U.S. safety and emissions requirements like heavy steel five mile per hour crash-resistant bumpers, and a lower power output. In ’75, it became the 280Z and soldiered on until 1978, when it was replaced by the monochrome, T-topped, disco-fantastic 280ZX. The redesigned car was the most popular Z to date, selling nearly 90,000 units in its first year alone. By then, the automotive landscape was already different from when the 240Z entered the picture. Datsun was so popular in the U.S. that it was preparing to transition the brand to the Nissan name. Honda experienced a meteoric rise during the gas crisis with its fuel-sipping Civic, and Toyota was already earning a reputation for bulletproof reliability with its small cars and trucks. For the first time in history, Japanese cars were beginning to be accepted in the U.S., and it was in no small part due to the early success of the Z-car.
Changing with the times and returning to its roots
After the bloated 280ZX, a wedge-shaped, gadget-laden 300ZX bowed for 1984 and ranked as one of the finest GT cars in the world during its five-year production run. An all-new 300ZX followed, winning Motor Trend’s 1990 Import Car of the Year award, and with the optional twin-turbo V6, it was one of the most formidable sports cars of the ’90s. After a six-year hiatus, the Z-car reappeared in 2002 with the 350Z, sporting a retro-futuristic look that drew from the original 240Z. The 370Z debuted in 2009, and while it’s a capable grand tourer, its age and Nissan’s hinting at making the next Z a crossover based on the recent Gripz concept jeopardize the future of the “car” in Z-car.
The strangest blast from the past
When the 300ZX was discontinued in the U.S. in 1996, Nissan couldn’t decide how to follow it up. Its solution? Buy 240Zs, restore them to as-new condition, and sell them at Nissan dealerships for $25,000 with a one year, 12,000 mile warranty. By then, the 240Z had become a legend.
An undisputed icon
Today, the original Z-car ranks up there with the all-time greats. While each successive generation has its fans, the 240Z actually did what the 2000GT only hinted at, and established Japanese cars as being as good — if not sometimes better — than anything else on the road. It’s no exaggeration that every Japanese sports car owes a little something to the 240Z for the barriers it broke through. But at the end of the day, where it came from is really irrelevant: The 240Z is simply one of the greatest sports cars of all-time.